is still used in its original meaning ‘unable to be imagined or grasped in the mind’:

• You wander…in cool glades of unthinkable beauty —Westminster Gazette, 1897.

But far more common now is the extended and more evaluative meaning ‘too unlikely or absurd to be considered’, comparable to similar shifts that have occurred with unimaginable and inconceivable:

• In these circumstances the removal of British troops was unthinkable —C. Allen, 1990

• What is known about the clergyman's honesty and integrity would have made such an act unthinkable —Contemporary Review, 2003.

Despite Fowler's objections to this use (as an expletive without the necessary ‘aroma of brimstone’) in a lengthy and ultimately futile tirade (1926), it is a natural development that retains the essence of the original meaning and applies it in a more realistic way, since nothing that is postulated can be literally ‘unthinkable’. Fowler knew this and saw in it the word's appeal, but common usage has taken a more practical course. To think the unthinkable means to consider ideas or possibilities usually regarded as too disturbing or undesirable to be contemplated. It originated in the 1960s as the title of a book (Thinking about the Unthinkable) by Herman Kahn about the prospect of a nuclear war.

Modern English usage. 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • unthinkable — [unthiŋ′kə bəl] adj. [ME unthenkable] 1. beyond the ability to understand or imagine; inconceivable 2. so extreme, foul, etc. as to be unfit to be imagined or considered [unthinkable war crimes] unthinkably adv …   English World dictionary

  • unthinkable — index implausible, impossible, incomprehensible, incredible, infeasible, ludicrous, prodigious (amazing) …   Law dictionary

  • unthinkable — (adj.) early 15c., too large to be conceived, unimaginable, from UN (Cf. un ) (1) not + thinkable (see THINK (Cf. think)). Meaning incapable of being framed by thought is recorded from mid 15c …   Etymology dictionary

  • unthinkable — [adj] incredible, unusual absurd, beyond belief, beyond possibility, exceptional, extraordinary, illogical, implausible, impossible, improbable, incogitable, inconceivable, insupportable, outlandish, out of the question*, preposterous, rare,… …   New thesaurus

  • unthinkable — ► ADJECTIVE ▪ too unlikely or undesirable to be considered a possibility. DERIVATIVES unthinkably adverb …   English terms dictionary

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  • unthinkable — [[t]ʌnθɪ̱ŋkəb(ə)l[/t]] 1) ADJ: usu v link ADJ (emphasis) If you say that something is unthinkable, you are emphasizing that it cannot possibly be accepted or imagined as a possibility. Her strong Catholic beliefs made abortion unthinkable. Syn:… …   English dictionary

  • unthinkable — un|think|a|ble [ʌnˈθıŋkəbəl] adj 1.) impossible to accept or imagine ▪ It is unthinkable that a mistake like this could have happened. it would be unthinkable for sb to do sth ▪ It would be unthinkable for me to stay anywhere but with the family …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • unthinkable — adj. VERBS ▪ be, seem ▪ make sth ▪ consider sth ▪ This would have been considered unthinkable only a decade ago. ADVERB …   Collocations dictionary

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